Internal Goods, External Goods

I’ve argued in a few places that MacIntyre’s take on goods internal to a practice is highly appealing, but lacking in some way.

Here’s my latest attempt to wrestle with the tension he presents between internal and external goods, drawing on a McCloskeyan sacred/profane dichotomy I used in this post.

For MacIntyre, practices include a set of values that new practitioners must be inculcated into before they can hone their craft. A crucial part of those values is a notion of goodness internal to that practice. External goods are things like public honoring, payment, and prizes, and are used to entice apprentices who have yet to internalize the notion of goodness within the practice. Institutions are the bodies of practice and knowledge devoted to using those external goods to bring people into particular practices. MacIntyre identifies a tension between the purpose of the institution, which is ostensibly to teach acceptance of internal goods, and the tools at its disposal, external goods, which could have a corrupting influence. A potter can fail to judge the quality of his pots by the standards of pottery if, for example, he cares only about what he can sell and for how much.

An economist scoffs at this analysis, for surely pots that easily break or are aesthetically unpleasing (to purchasers) will not sell well, especially over the long run. But craftsmen and practitioners themselves are quite familiar with this distinction, though often employing different terminology. See Bill Watterson on the newspaper comics business:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

It is easy to see in this passage MacIntyre’s internal goods in “the concerns of art” and external goods in “the interests of business.”

I made the following argument before I had read any MacIntyre:

Art, like virtue, is a balancing act—you must balance internal considerations for what you desire to accomplish with the plot, how you want your characters to develop, what sort of visual impacts you want to create, and so on. These are as much a “rocky marriage” as the marriage between them and more external considerations—who your implied audience is, whether there are enough such people to pay your bills, and if so, whether your agent or the syndicate or a publisher can be persuaded as such. To name but a few.

Art is the balance that is struck across all of these factors, not just the internal ones. Sometimes this means taking the Austin Kleon approach (or the one I recommend here) and keeping a day job unrelated to your art, so that what you actually create focuses primarily on striking the internal balance. That is ultimately where Watterson ended up, after he left the public limelight at the end of Calvin and Hobbes’ run.

Often, though, the things we think of as truly great were created by striking the best balance creators were capable of out in the marketplace—in partnership with the many merchants and middlemen who operate in that space.

My McCloskeyan take on the tension between internal and external goods goes as follows: actual practices require us to internalize the external goods to a great extent. All practices in history only survive because there is some material way of supporting them. Sometimes this is through direct purchase, sometimes it is patronage, and sometimes we take the Austin Kleon path. But the practitioner will have some notion of the good that is informed by but not subservient to what consumers or patrons or audiences signal their beliefs to be on the subject.

Focusing on the internal goods makes us more reliable, and better at our craft. But part of that focus involves reshaping our relationship to the external goods—for instance, working to make money in order to participate in MacIntyre’s networks of uncalculated giving, or taking consumer preferences as an input but not the only one, and hardly a given.

In any case full inculcation into a practice is not merely casting off caring about external goods in order to favor internal goods; a process of internalizing those external goods in relationship to the practice is a crucial part of the internal goods themselves.

Feedback extremely welcome on this.

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Character Has Spillover Benefits Which Are Rivalrous

The title kind of spoils the punchline, doesn’t it?

Sam W asks if good character is a public good. He says, on the one hand, that the benefits of one’s character are clearly fairly geographically limited in scope. On the other hand, the spillovers from bad character are so excessively negative that perhaps there’s something of a public good from simply getting people above that threshold.

On the other hand, in thinking over the honor vs honoring, he noted:

Thumbnail economic reasoning suggests that the spillover benefits of private type A honor are not captured in its price, suggesting that it should be under-supplied. Whether or not it actually is under-supplied is not a question I believe cannot easily be answered.

Still, the theory strikes me as reasonable. And I believe it strikes ordinary people as reasonable, too. That’s why we have type B honor. We bestow ribbons and medals to Soldiers and Sailors, we erect monuments and statues, we sing songs, tell tales, and speak in awed, hushed tones about those among us who have acted with greatness. This compunction to reward honor, whether intentional or not, compensates the honorable for their private excellence.

Thus there have always existed private mechanisms for provisioning the external benefits of character.

What I want to suggest is that good character has spillover benefits, but that these benefits are rivalrous, and therefore good character is not a public good in the classical Samuelsonian sense.

Consider the reliable man, living in a community suddenly beset by some natural disaster. He can be expected not to get in the way or panic, but also to pitch in in any way he can. As Sam put it, “The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia.” A community of reliable people can pick up more quickly, move beyond a disaster sooner, than a community where reliable people are in the minority.

But the per person contribution is relatively small, and is capable of being misdirected or misspent. Even the reliable man only has a 24 hour day. Even the community of reliable people does not have an expert on every subject, may need to hire civil engineers from outside of their group in order to repair the damage done by a hurricane or earthquake. The expertise, time, and simple muscle that are volunteered in such a situation are scarce goods that need to be allocated carefully.

This is why I prefer an ethic that prioritizes concrete problems with direct feedback over telescopic concerns. The good character of the few is good for the many, but its spillovers ought to be prudently directed.

Valuing Reading for Its Own Sake

There is a certain tension that I feel when doing research for the book I’m working on. On the one hand, I want to take all of the books on my reading list (and any I might conceivably add to it along the way) and mine them as quickly as possible for materials that can serve me in my goal. On the other hand, I am reading some truly fantastic books, by brilliant minds who are deeply immersed in traditions of thought that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of. These are books demanding to be respected, to be read at a tempo that they can be properly appreciated. They are not mere tools for me to pick up and use to build my cathedral. If anything, they are master-craftsmen working on a project which I can only hope to one day be skilled enough to be a part of.

This tension seems to me to be the core of what virtue ethicists are getting at when they criticize utilitarian and similar conceptions of happiness, morality, and social organization. It is the tension in acknowledging that people both seek to be honored and want to be honorable, want to build up a network of trust and want to be trustworthy. “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely,” said the man with a far more sophisticated theory of human nature than the utilitarians who took up his project in political economy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.

of Scarcity and Abundance

Abundance does not eliminate scarcity. Until we’ve licked the problem of scarce attention and limited time, each of us is bound by the hard constraints imposed by our wee mortal existences. 

Whether sacred, profane, or both, cultivating virtue is costly. The technology of rhetoric is to reduce these costs to the consumer. Aesop was the original Amazon, making virtue as easy as dozing off in mommy’s lap with a cautionary tale in your ear. Tale-weavers today continue in this tradition, mining storytelling tropes to sell modern rectitude, endlessly recycling pre-fab bits of cultural organs and connective tissue, all the while passing on hints about what the audience should avoid or aspire to.

“Do we need a new eudaimonia” is, I think, the wrong question to ask. A better question is, “what can we do as storytellers to help our audience make virtue less expensive?” I don’t think this cheapens virtue in a particularly perverse way, but I do acknowledge that this electronic abundance sure changes the relative prices. 

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Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement. 

 

Blood Disease: A Metaphor

AG writes that he agrees with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and profane are inseparable. Spivonomist starts it when he observes that honor is hard to define, distinguishing two of its meanings as sacred (honor) and profane (prudence).  SH really gets things cooking with his wonderful example from Schopenhauer, exposing those Greeks for the troublemakers they are. It’s not their fault, really, driving into the realm of ethics the notions of virtue, that is, putting into the realm of pure intellect those matters unseen, that which is cooked in the human liver. And heart. A physician, for example, must distinguish blood from bone in order to make a diagnosis of indications. But where does blood come from?

If the blood is diseased, it stands to reason that the bone is diseased, and the flesh. Even if the disease is not actually observable in the one, but only in the other, no one says, “Gosh, only my blood is diseased; I can live without that.” A painful disease to the bone is a painful disease to the entire body, and a deadly disease to the bone is a deadly disease.

When we say that the sacred and the profane are inseparable, we are really making an observation that the sacred intertwines the profane in the same way that blood vessels intertwine flesh and bone. Where does one end and the other begin? Nevertheless, we must distinguish, knowing that the distinction, like this metaphor, will cease to serve our intellectual pursuit of what is virtue versus what is prudence, and which has what effect on the other.

What we’re trying to do, of course, is diagnose indications, usually in an effort to treat our ills, beginning with the self, extending to the community, then, finally, to the society. A society filled with Schopenhauer’s Tituses would be ideal because his liver is healthy. Nevertheless, a society filled with Caiuses would be a good society, though short-lived because his liver is not healthy.

Thus, it is easy to change minds, and you can do it by force, as we have seen in the realm of American morality over the last several years. The goal to have many Caiuses is achievable. The goal to have many Tituses is hopeless because it is impossible to change hearts.

Impossible? Near-impossible. To borrow from a possibly-deceased pastiche twitter account, whom I looked to as a father figure: when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, “What was the last thing about which you changed your mind? And what was the last thing about which you changed your heart?” And the dagger, I think: “How do you know you changed your heart?”

 

Prudence is Good, but Not By Itself

The discussion started by Sam boils down to this: honor is a sacred quality, and prudence is by necessity profane, worldly. People have always in the back of their minds, or explicitly, believed that we should be able to embrace with sacred without resorting to incentives which derive from profane motivations.

When all is said and done, however, I agree with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and the profane are deeply intertwined, inseparable even. To speak of a human good we have to consider human nature. If our ideal is utterly unmoved by honors then our ideal is unattainable, even by approximation.

Aristotle’s mean, or intermediate, never involves discarding motivations entirely, but rather experiencing them in the right way, in the right circumstance, in the right amount, and so on. An honorable person will do what is right even when no one will honor them, but the prudently honorable person also understands that much of the time this does work out to your advantage. That does not mean that prudence justifies honor—just that the concerns of the sacred and the profane must work together (not simply be balanced) in subtle ways that require experience and practical reason to judge, not to mention peers and community.

Just as the tension that the artist feels between their vision and the demands of making a living can yield work just as great (and arguably greater) than the independently wealthy artist, so too does the tension the actual person feels between honor and prudence yield more truly honorable behavior than the person utterly indifferent to what is honored by other people.